City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago

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When 1919 began, the city of Chicago seemed on the verge of transformation. Modernizers had an audacious, expensive plan to turn the city from a brawling, unglamorous place into "the Metropolis of the World." But just as the dream seemed within reach, pandemonium broke loose and the city's highest ambitions were suddenly under attack by the same unbridled energies that had given birth to them in the first place.

It began on a balmy Monday afternoon when a blimp in flames crashed...

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When 1919 began, the city of Chicago seemed on the verge of transformation. Modernizers had an audacious, expensive plan to turn the city from a brawling, unglamorous place into "the Metropolis of the World." But just as the dream seemed within reach, pandemonium broke loose and the city's highest ambitions were suddenly under attack by the same unbridled energies that had given birth to them in the first place.

It began on a balmy Monday afternoon when a blimp in flames crashed through the roof of a busy downtown bank, incinerating those inside. Within days, a racial incident at a hot, crowded South Side beach spiraled into one of the worst urban riots in American history, followed by a transit strike that paralyzed the city. Then, when it seemed as if things could get no worse, police searching for a six-year-old girl discovered her body in a dark North Side basement.

City of Scoundrels captures the tumultuous birth of the modern American city, with all of its light and dark aspects in vivid relief.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review
…a lavishly intricate, well-paced account of a great city lashed to the breaking point by a political perfect storm…Above all, City of Scoundrels freshly illuminates how the riots of 1919 were a turning point for African-Americans.
—James McManus
The Washington Post
…a crisply focused affair that relates how a blimp disaster, a transit strike and a race riot made for a particularly hellish July of 1919…Krist shows an admirable ability to interweave so many threads while breathing life into a host of supporting characters…As a page-turner that offers resonant insights into the inflammatory political and racial dynamics of an earlier time, City of Scoundrels works just fine.
—Mark Caro
Publishers Weekly
Drawing readers in by focusing on the stories of individual Chicoans affected by a series of tragic events, Krist (The White Cascade) describes a Chicago that was “push… to the edge of civic disintegration” by 12 days of crises in the summer of 1919. On Monday, July 21, an experimental Goodyear blimp flying over the densely populated downtown Loop district to promote an amusement park suddenly burst into flames and crashed into the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank, injuring 27 and killing 13. The next day, the six-year-old daughter of Scottish immigrant grocers was snatched and choked to death by a neighbor who buried her body in the basement of their apartment building. On Saturday, July 26, a highly regarded municipal court judge committed suicide by jumping from his City Hall chambers, and on Sunday, a black youth’s death caused by a white bather at a whites’-only beach sparked a race riot on the South Side. As the rioting continued, a transit strike paralyzed Chicago on Tuesday, July 29, and endangering lives by playing politics, the controversial Mayor Big Bill Thompson dithered about calling in the National Guard to quell the violence. Krist serves up a solid, well-informed, and vibrant slice of urban history. Map. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
"(An) eager narrative that delivers vivid reading."
Kirkus Reviews

"The most compelling adventure yarn, full of crashing dirigibles, bloody riots, and classic crooks. Loved it."
—Scott Turow, author of Presumed Innocent

"A lavishly intricate, well-paced account of a great city lashed to the breaking point by a political perfect storm."
New York Times


Kirkus Reviews
Think you've had a rough couple of weeks? The author of The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America's Deadliest Avalanche (2007) returns with a tale of air disaster, race and ethnic riots, labor violence, child murder, political corruption and more--all in a Windy City fortnight in 1919. Employing a zigzag style throughout his entertaining, troubling narrative, Krist corrals several plot threads: the fiery, deadly crash of the blimp Wingfoot Express into a Loop bank building, the disappearance of and frantic search for a little (white) girl, a violent race riot that transformed the South Side into a war zone (it took the National Guard to restore order), a looming transit strike that threatened to put more angry people on the street, assorted ethnic clashes, the emergence of crisis-oriented journalism and the vicious political struggle between Chicago Major Big Bill Thompson and Illinois Gov. Frank Lowden. Krist also includes regular commentary by a young woman diarist, Emily Frankenstein (whose father, incredibly, was named Victor--and was a doctor), who pops up too often to offer banalities about her life. The blimp crash seemed to ignite kindling that was already smoldering, and soon the city blazed with riot and fury. Snipers and hooligans abounded; cops struggled (though not enough, claimed some aggrieved black residents); politicians lied, changed the subject and tried to cover their asses. A suspect in the abduction waxed arrogant--at first; Ring Lardner, Carl Sandburg, Edna Ferber, H.L. Mencken and others weighed in. A grim but eager narrative that delivers vivid reading.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307917737
  • Publisher: Books on Tape, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/28/2012
  • Format: CD

Meet the Author

Gary Krist
Gary Krist has written for the New York Times, Esquire, Salon, the Washington Post Book World, and other publications.  He is the author of the acclaimed The White Cascade as well as several works of fiction.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: The Burning Hive: July 21, 1919 xv

Part 1 Collision Course: January 1 to July 21, 1919 21

Part 2 Crisis: July 22 to July 31, 1919 115

Part 3 From the Ashes: August 1, 1919, to late 1920 223

Epilogue: The Two Chicagos: May 14, 1920 261

Acknowledgments 275

Notes 279

Bibliography 321

Index 335

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Gary Krist Author of City Of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago

Q. The books you've written have ranged very widely, both in genre and in subject matter. What drew you to write narrative nonfiction about Chicago?
A. Whether I'm writing short fiction, thrillers, or narrative history, my goal is always to find compelling stories to tell, and there's no richer source of narrative than a major urban metropolis. The old TV series was right: There really are eight million stories in the naked city. But in this book I'm also trying to tell the larger, overarching story of the city itself—to show how those 8 million (or, in Chicago's case, 3 million) individual narratives coalesced to give rise to the great urban centers we see today.

Q. But why Chicago?
A. Because Chicago, more than any other city in the country, was really what you might call the great test case of urban America in the late-19th and early-20th century. The growth of any large city is inevitably a tumultuous process, full of strife, but with a city of immigrants, it involves an almost Darwinian struggle among scores of different ethnicities, races, and economic classes. And in Chicago—with its huge immigrant population and sudden influx of southern black migrants during the Progressive Era —this process was especially dramatic. Granted, New York might have been bigger and arguably just as diverse, but Chicago was a much younger city, its institutions far less established, and it was growing faster and more chaotically. That's why Chicago, not New York, was regarded as the wonder of the age—precisely because it was a colossus that had sprung up out of nothing over just a few decades. (As Otto von Bismarck famously remarked, "I wish I could go to America if only to see that Chicago.") And, of course, there was no guarantee that it was going to succeed. Would this vastly diverse group of refugees from every corner of the globe really manage to come together and, despite manifold hatreds and competing interests, successfully transform a former frontier village into one of the economic and cultural powerhouses of the world? No one really knew. So Chicago was, to a certain extent, a great experiment. And there were some frightening times when it looked as if the entire experiment might come crashing down under the weight of too many groups of people wanting too many different things.

Q. So what made you choose this particular 12-day period in Chicago's history?
A. It's one of those frightening times that hasn't really been recognized by historians. Every city, of course, goes through critical turning points, and Chicago has had more than its share—the Great Fire of 1871, the world's fair of 1893, the riots of 1968—all of which have been written about before. But no one has really focused on the summer crisis of 1919, when Chicago went from a state of high optimism about its future to the brink of civic collapse and martial law, all within the space of 12 days. World War I was over, and the city had just begun implementing its great vision for the future—the so-called Plan of Chicago, architect Daniel Burnham's utopian redevelopment scheme that was supposed to turn Chicago into "the Metropolis of the World." But on the very same day that the City Council was voting on this blueprint for urban perfection, the whole city started coming apart in a terrifying way. A blimp crashed into the downtown financial district, a horrifying race riot broke out, a train and streetcar strike paralyzed the city, and a brutal child murder made people wonder whether even their next-door neighbors could be trusted—all over 12 short days. To those living through it, it looked as if the entire fabric of normal existence—the underpinning of basic stability that any society rests on—was suddenly unraveling before their eyes. I remember sitting in the newspaper microfilm room at the Chicago Public Library, reading about all of this in a state of utter incredulity. It was such a vivid illustration of how the very same energies and ambitions that combine to build a great American city can so easily go awry and threaten to destroy it.

Q. But Chicago obviously survived the crisis. What happened?
A. Well, it's hard to sum up in a few words, but ultimately it came down to something very personal—a late-night showdown between the Mayor of Chicago and the Governor of Illinois (who absolutely loathed each other) over whether to turn the militia loose on the streets of the city. Thanks largely to the outcome of that clash of personalities, order was eventually restored. And as so often happens in the wake of disasters, the city eventually came back in some ways stronger than before—though for a time it certainly didn't look as if it would.

Q. There are so many intriguing characters in the cast of City of Scoundrels. Was there one figure that stood out as your favorite?
A. No question about it: Big Bill Thompson, the mayor. Big Bill is really a narrative historian's greatest gift—a loud, outrageous blowhard in a cowboy hat who liked to think of himself as "the People's David," defending the average Chicagoan against the Goliaths of wealth and privilege. The local press liked to depict him as an extravagantly corrupt demagogue and buffoon, which to an extent he was, and he was certainly guilty of some shamefully dirty fighting against his enemies. But he was also an extremely savvy politician who was remarkably ahead of his time in things like bringing African Americans into the political process. And say what you will about him, many of the civic monuments that make today's Chicago such a remarkable urban showcase were created under the leadership of "Big Bill the Builder" (another of his favorite nicknames), even if, thanks to the economics of machine politics, they ended up costing the taxpayers a lot more than they should have. I think Big Bill deserves a place right up there in the pantheon of great American con artists, maybe somewhere between Huey Long and P.T. Barnum.

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